Extreme Makeover, Mongol Hordes Edition

If work or play takes you to Houston between now and September 7, check out the Genghis Khan exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural History and you’ll never again equate the conquering Mongol with “barbarian.”

The “conquering” part is definitely an understatement. During his reign Genghis Khan, who died in 1227, brought more land under his control than either Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, but the 200-plus treasures (jewels, bows, arrows, armor, silk robes, imperial gold and other artifacts, many of which had never before left Mongolia) on exhibit paint a more nuanced portrait. Created and designed by Don Lessem, who is best known for the dinosaur exhibits he designs for museums, the Genghis Khan exhibit shows that “we have Genghis to thank for the post office, passports, paper money, diplomatic immunity, national parks, even hamburgers, pants, skis, baklava, and yelling ‘hooray,’” Lessem says. “No one ruled more of the Earth, no one influenced its future like Genghis,” who brought these innovations to the West. There’s also an IMAX film; the show moves to Denver, Dallas and other North American museums for two years after it closes in Houston.

The exhibit, the most comprehensive assembly of Genghis artifacts ever displayed, takes aim at the stereotype of Genghis as the barbarian leader of barbaric “Mongol hordes” who swooped in from the East and destroyed every civilization they encountered. “Although he was often referred to as a brutal killer, Genghis Khan achieved his victories through brilliant tactics, earning him the reputation as a military genius,” said Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Curator of Anthropology of the Houston Museum. “However, this special exhibition presents a new image of the legendary leader,” who not only created the nation of Mongolia and its written language but (with his descendants) established what became the borders of countries from India to Iran, Korea to China.

Born into poverty, Temujiin—the future Genghis Khan—built the greatest military machine the world had ever seen, but Lessem emphasizes what an accompanying book calls “the civilizing influence of a uniquely sophisticated ruler too long branded only as a barbarian.” Genghis established freedom of religion and cultural expression in the lands he conquered, promoted a meritocracy and created the first efficient mail system. He even popularized pants (much better for horseback riding). There is a more literal sense in which there is a little Genghis in all of us: geneticists estimate that one-quarter of the world’s population carries his genes.

As Lessen writes in his foreword to the book that accompanies the museum show, “Genghis Khan was one of the world’s most visionary geniuses. From an impoverished, illiterate and isolated youth, Genghis created a nation, a language, religious and political freedoms, a post office, Pony Express, diplomatic immunity, a network of international toll roads, and a host of other innovations in what was by far the largest empire in the history of the world. The greatest of civilizers never slept indoors and only once set food in a building. He dressed as a common man. . . . Raising his sons to become rulers, he insisted that the key to leadership was self-control, and he cautioned them against pursuing a ‘colorful’ life with material frivolities and wasteful pleasures.”

The exhibit includes a male mummy dated to a millennium ago and uncovered with two females in a Mongolian cave by local herdsmen in 1997. He appears to have been murdered when he was between 25 and 30, says Bruno Frohlich at the Smithsonian Institution, his neck twisted and broken, his head bashed in. Truth be told, the date makes him a little old to have been the victim of Genghis’s army, as the exhibit coyly implies, but hey, what museum can resist a mummy?